Monday, January 17, 2011

THE LIT LAB: Alan Stewart Carl On His Story "What Our Fathers Knew"

So, when “What Our Fathers Knew” first came out, it led to a lot of really fantastic writers – like Sheldon, here – contacting me or linking to the story. And I didn’t understand why. Seriously. The story was fine, I thought, and I knew I owed a debt to the Bull editors for helping get it into better shape, but I didn’t understand why this particular story was getting such a strong, positive response. I’m going to try to figure that out here – take a two-years removed look back and pick apart the story from the inside to see what I can see.

I remember that the story began life as an attempt to write a poker story. I was thinking bad beats and suck outs and all-ins. But, as stories often do, it unfurled differently than expected. I think this is because fiction is poorly suited for poker. Cards have no agenda; they don’t care who wins. But a story does care who wins. This is why the last scene in Rounders and the poker scene in Casino Royale suck so much. They remove the game’s amorality and thus its suspense.

I don’t know if that problem/realization is what pushed me to tell the story in first-person plural or not, but I suspect the POV choice was more-or-less an attempt to not have a protagonist whose fate was dependent on me inventing dramatic hands of poker. Once I made that POV choice, the specifics of the game – the actual hands and the bets and all of that – became meaningless to the story. I mean, you get a group of guys together to play poker and some lose and some win. That’s inevitable. Suddenly, the story was less about poker and more about this dynamic of friends where some are doing well and some aren’t and how that disrupts things for all of them.

That disruption within the poker games is, of course, what allows the men to think about the other, bigger disruptions in their lives – the wants of their wives, the needs of their children, etc. And it’s what, ultimately, makes them pine for the perceived stability their own father’s enjoyed.

And now I’ve gotten to what I think is the heart of the story: the role the remembered fathers play. And when I think about that role, I think about the way these fathers are portrayed as these manly men who had no worries. But what I really key on when I reread the story is the line: “Or so we think. Or so we hope.”

That line – as it relates to the validity of the memory of the fathers – turns a story about dissatisfied men into a story about myth making, about the ways we recreate our pasts and twist our perceptions to fit a reality we wish existed, rather than the one that does exist. These men in “What Our Fathers Know,” are remembering a past that almost surely didn’t exist – a manly past where men were fully in charge and unbothered by life.

If it sounds like I’ve thought about this aspect of myth-making before, it’s because I have. I don’t know if the myth-making is what other people respond to when they read “What Our Fathers Knew, but it’s what I see when I reread this. And when I see it, I can feel myself within the story. Because, when it comes to life/writing, I’m fascinated by this idea of reality, by the way we construct our own truths and all the ways those constructed truths come to disappoint/ruin us and, occasionally, save us. I’m sure this personal fascination with the heartbreaks of reality is why so much of my fiction involves myth making and mentally skewed people and/or fantastical worlds. It’s probably also why my favorite last line in all of fiction is: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

Because, you know, it IS pretty to think so. Until it’s not. Until you’re sitting at a poker table and realize there’s probably no good explanation for anything. That’s what this story is about, I guess. Disillusionment.

1 comment:

  1. this is a very telling dissection and cuts to the core of why i found the piece some appealing - the metaphor of the game, the relationships, the intersection of these guys at this time and the meaning all these things have for them is skillfully developed in your piece and screams out in this exposition. i am also glad you give a shout out to the editors at Bull. I know first hand how their light hand and solid input take a good story and really make it sing. very insightful.

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